Faith Whittlesey, President Ronald Reagan’s ambassador to Switzerland, who helped popularize the message of the “Reagan Revolution” and advocated for a staunch, traditional conservatism for decades, passed away Monday at 79.
Whittlesey, lately of Delray Beach, Florida, succumbed to a long bout with cancer in Washington, DC, surrounded by family and friends.
Born in 1939 in Jersey City, New Jersey, where her father worked as a railroad billing clerk, she rose to become an advisor — and friend — of government and corporate leaders around the world in the complex arenas of political intelligence and strategy as well a pioneering woman in the legal profession and the conservative movement.
Whittlesey graduated from the University of Pennsylvania Law School in 1963 and clerked with Judge Francis Van Dusen of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania when, according to her biographer, historian Thomas Carty, 95 percent of judges and lawyers were men. At odds with left-wing feminists for much of her career, she is nevertheless credited with first popularizing the aphorism that Ginger Rodgers did everything Fred Astaire did “backwards and in high heels.”
In 1975, she left Harrisburg and entered local politics, running on a reform ticket for the Delaware County Council. This key county in eastern Pennsylvania then had a population of about 600,000. She won in an upset and subsequently served alternately as chairman and vice chairman until 1979. In 1978, she ran in the Republican primary for Lieutenant Governor and lost to the son of a popular former Pennsylvania governor.
Whittlesey was an early supporter of Ronald Reagan’s ambitions for the White House. She backed his insurgent 1976 campaign against sitting President Gerald Ford. In Reagan’s epoch-defining campaign of 1980, Whittlesey served as a delegate to the Republican National Convention in Detroit, where she co-chaired the Subcommittee on Foreign Policy and Defense. She then co-chaired Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign for her state and was credited with delivering the crucial eastern Pennsylvania votes. “I became fluent in explaining Reagan’s foreign policy during that period,” Whittlesey told the American Conservative in a 2015 profile. “I had to go out into the far reaches of Pennsylvania to explain it to ordinary people.”
In this time, Whittlesey was involved in formulating what she called Reagan’s “core agenda,” which in her memoirs she described as:
…support for the peaceful defeat of the Soviet Union without commitment of U.S. troops in combat, defense of life, opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment with its hidden agenda of tax-funded abortion and same-sex marriage, decentralized government, lower taxes and reduced government regulation of the private sector, school prayer, defeat of Marxism-Leninism in its various permutations and manifestations, individual Second Amendment rights, the establishment of official diplomatic recognition of the Vatican, support for tuition tax credits for parochial schooling.
Whittlesey was twice appointed to the American ambassadorship to Switzerland, first when Reagan took the White House in 1981 and again in 1985, where she continued abroad her role as a communicator for the Reagan Revolution, explaining to a skeptical European diplomatic establishment Reagan’s policy of confrontation with the Soviet Union that would eventually lead to the downfall of international communism.
Between these diplomatic terms, Whittlesey became Assistant to the President for Public Liaison, the only woman on President Reagan’s 18-member senior White House staff. In Washington, much as she had in Berne, Switzerland, she had to explain the administration’s goals to an audience that was often anything but receptive.
“Reagan’s foreign policy was strongly opposed—not only by Democrats, who ferociously opposed it, but by the establishment wing of his own party,” Whittlesey told the American Conservative of her time in the White House. “He was called a warmonger and a cowboy.”
“We engaged the public, explained Ronald Reagan’s policies,” she said. “But we were just explaining: not trying to influence public opinion, but to let people know that his policies were based on facts, so they could make up their own minds once they heard the facts rationally presented.”
After the Reagan administration, Whittlesey became a partner and of counsel with several prominent law firms and served on numerous corporate boards – including Munich Reinsurance, Valassis Communications, Sunbeam, Nestlé USA and Schindler Elevator USA – as well as on institutional and charitable boards. She served as President of the American Swiss Foundation in New York City until 2008 when she became Chairman Emeritus. She received four honorary doctorates and numerous other awards. She was especially touched by having a prize-winning tea rose named for her in 2006.
One of her proudest accomplishments at the Foundation was establishing the annual Young Leaders Conference Program, in which upcoming political and cultural leaders from the U.S. spend an intensive week in Switzerland discussing ideas and issues with their Swiss counterparts. This program has continued for 28 sessions. Ambassador Whittlesey personally attended every session. As of 2018 the program has more than 1,200 alumni who have helped forge strong bonds between the U.S. and the Swiss.
Ambassador Whittlesey remained active in American conservative politics, often advocating positions that were unpopular on the Right at the time, but have, in the age of Trump, found a much wider audience. Perhaps most notably, she was one of the small group of prominent conservatives to oppose the 2003 invasion of Iraq. As the American Conservative wrote in 2015:
She expressed this view one day at the Heritage Foundation’s showing of “Reagan,” a documentary on the president released in 2011. There’s a section at the end of the movie, Whittlesey points out, which “purports to show why Reagan would’ve supported the Iraq War.” After the viewing, Whittlesey stood up. She said, “I had the privilege of working with Reagan for eight years, and I think differently. I don’t think Reagan would’ve supported these wars.”
Late in life, Whittlesy continued to be active and relevant on the national political stage, endorsing the Republican ticket in 2016 and writing numerous op-eds, largely counseling restraint and prudence in U.S. foreign and domestic affairs. She served as a bridge between the Reagan Revolution and the Trump Revolution 36 years later. As co-chair of Reaganites for Trump, she pushed for the resumption of Reagan’s “core agenda.” A practicing Roman Catholic, she also served as a member of the Trump campaign Catholic Advisory Group.